By Steve Kopitz
Buying inline skates for yourself isn’t exactly a complicated process. It also doesn’t come with the hefty price tag of buying a car. But that doesn’t mean that you should just find the least expensive pair of inline skates on the market and expect them to perform like the most expensive pair on the shelf. Finding a pair of inline skates that are right for you is really all about knowing the level of inline skater you are, the type of inline skating you plan on doing, and understand the parts of the product your buying. It is the purpose of this guide to help you understand the components of inline skates and help you make an educated choice when purchasing a pair of inline skates.
The most important part of an inline skate, from a comfort standpoint, is the boot. The boot of the skate is what holds your foot in place and ultimately determines how much you will enjoy inline skating. If the skate you purchase has a good boot and keeps your feet feeling good then you will probably enjoy inline skating. On the flip side, if the skate you purchase doesn’t offer a decent boot, your feet will start aching and hurting after each skating session and you may end up tossing your skates in the garage, attic, closet, or other area that is prone for dust collection. This isn’t exactly what you want to do with brand new skates…you may as well take the money you spent and shove it down your garbage disposal. To avoid such calamity, it is best to understand the components of a solid inline skate boot so you know what to look for when shopping for the inline skate that works for you. If you do so, you can be assured that you won’t be throwing your money away…plus your feet will feel good too!
Inline skate boots literally consist of everything from the frame up. This includes the shell, the liner, and also the closure mechanism. If you aren’t familiar with where each of these items is located on an inline skate, please review the following illustration:
Most of the inline skates that you will find on the market today are manufactured with a soft shell boot design. However, when inline skating first started to gain popularity in the mid-to-late 1980s, inline skate boots were made of hard plastic shells with foam liner inserts (think ski boot). This design, better known as a hard shell skate, was uncomfortable but it got the job done. The introduction of the soft boot skate occurred in 1995, with skate manufacturer K2 developing the industry’s first soft boot skates. The concept was a revolutionary one and changed the landscape of the skating world. The only hard shell boot exceptions that exist in the market today are in the aggressive skate market and some entry-level children’s skates.
The idea of the soft boot design was, and still is, to provide a soft, comfortable feel, with durable materials and plastic reinforcements for high-wearing areas (e.g. base of the boot or the toe of the boot). A typical soft shell boot will have a plastic or carbon skeleton, commonly known as the cuff. This cuff goes along the back and under the skate liner to provide necessary support and rigidity. Without this cuff, it would be impossible for a skater to lean back, lean sideways, or even apply the brake. Last time we checked, these were some important elements of inline skating, and we think that you probably agree with that notion.
A soft shell boot has provides a number of significant advantages. First, it enhances the level of comfort that exists when inline skating. Think about this in terms of your shoes. Would you rather wear a pair of shoes that are made of plastic or a pair made with leather and mesh? Odds are you prefer the latter.
Secondly, soft shell boots allow your feet to remain much cooler. This advantage follows in close line with the comfort level previously described. The fabrics that are used are more breathable than plastic counterparts. This prevents excessive sweating of your feet in your skates, which ultimately keeps your feet more comfortable during a skating session.
The liner of your skate is the actual piece that you put your foot in. Typically this piece is removable and will look similar in shape to the image provided below.
Skate liners are available in a number of fabrics, stitchings, and types. Among the possible fabric options you will find are neoprene, mesh, vinyl, and leather. Different fabrics are utilized in different areas of a liner to add support, make a liner durable and breathable, and also to allow for easy entry and exit. A decent liner will utilize different materials, whereas a basic liner may only utilize one or two materials. Stitching is also an important aspect of your liner because it is the proverbial glue that holds it together. Basic liners will likely only use single stitching (a few may use double). Better liners will more than likely always utilize the more durable method of double stitching. This is done to increase durability and longevity of the liner.
In addition to fabrics and stitching, liners are also available in various types. The following is a list of liner types, ranked from good to best:
Standard – Constructed of foam materials and offers basic comfort and padding for your feet. Lack any special or customization features.
Auto-Fit – Typically utilize gels of pads that will contour automatically to your feet each time you wear your skates. Provides extra support and more comfort than standard liners.
Memory Fit – Similar to the gel/pad style of Auto-Fit liners. The difference exists with the liners ability to remember your foot pattern and contour to it. As time goes on, the gels and pads will continue to shape to your feet as you wear them.
Heat Moldable – The best option available. Liners are removed and heated (do not attempt at home, seek a skate shop professional). Once heated, the warm liners are placed on your feet. The liner material will contour to your foot as it cools and begins to re-harden. Once cooling is completed, your skates are now custom-fitted to your feet.
Boot cuffs will be present on an inline skate in the form of a hard plastic or carbon skeleton. Boot cuffs extend up the back of the skate boot and around the top as illustrated in the image below:
Inline skate boot cuffs are designed primarily to provide support around your ankles for lateral movement. The secondary purpose of a cuff design is to allow the skate to flex forward comfortably, yet remain stiff when you are leaning laterally or backward.
Similar to how a carbon frame instead of a plastic frame on inline skates for performance purposes, which is discussed below, so are carbon cuffs. Carbon cuffs are lighter and stiffer, thereby providing a higher level of performance. One benefit to a lighter cuff is that it reduces the overall weight of the skate and a lighter skate weight means a faster skate, a more maneuverable skate, and a more efficient skate. Furthermore, a stiffer cuff is more preferable because it offers a more direct transfer of motion. Basically this means that a carbon cuff will allow you turn faster and with less effort. If you’re looking for a performance skate then you’ll be interested in a carbon cuff for its performance characteristics. If you’re simply looking for a skate to take a quick skate around the block or neighborhood, a plastic cuff will suit your needs. The choice however, is ultimately up to you.
If you’re interested in a racing style skate, keep in mind that the cuff on a racing skate boot will be much lower than a recreational or fitness skate. This difference exists because a racing skate needs far less lateral movement. A taller cuff would add unnecessary weight to a racing skate. Most skating done by racers is in a straight line and a cuff for quick and frequent turning is not needed. As a comparison to the cuffs pictured previously, here is an image of a cuff on a racing skate. You can clearly see that the top of the cuff of a racing skate is positioned much lower than a recreational or fitness skate.
The evolution of inline skates over the years has not been restricted to only boot design and liners. Closure systems have also evolved so that your feet can be positioned properly and securely. Skates available on the market today offer a variety of closure systems, and often utilize more than one. Closure systems that you will typically find are:
Standard Lacing – Originally the only form of a closure system, standard lacing systems are generally never used as the sole means for a closure system. Instead, they are frequently partnered with ratchet buckles and/or Velcro straps.
Ratchet Buckles – At one time, this was a two- or three-buckle closure system that replaced lacing systems as the sole closure system on inline skates. It is still a method used on its own for some skates, but is typically represented as one ratchet buckle at the top of the cuff that is used in tandem with a lacing system.
Velcro Straps/Power Straps – Rarely, if ever used as the only means of skate closure, Velcro Straps/Power Straps are used in tandem with the aforementioned standard lacing and ratchet buckle systems. They help to keep your heel positioned correctly in the heel cup of the skate.
Power Assisted (also known as Quick Lace) – Power Assisted closure systems are very convenient. They allow for easy-on, easy-off skating and are a great time saver. The system consists of a thin but extremely durable cable that runs up the skate boot like a standard lace. With a single pull to quick lace mechanism on each of your skates, your skates can be fastened securely and comfortably. They are often present on skates with an accompanying single ratchet buckle.
To give you better idea of what each of these closure types looks like and their positioning on the skate, please review the illustration below:
When purchasing inline skates, the wheels, frame, bearings, and all other aspects are sold as a package. If you want any of these items to be different than what is in the box, you will have to purchase them separately and replace them. However if you have done your homework, you won’t have to spend the extra money to do that, and you can get a skate that offers all (or mostly all) of the features you desire.
One of the areas where having a solid understanding of what you desire is most important is the skate frame. Not all frames are the same, so knowing the differences will save you from confusion and frustration, as well as make your skating experience more enjoyable. Typically, the better the skate you purchase, the better the frame the skate is likely to have.
Well what is meant by better skate and better frame? Well, we won’t beat around the bush, better skates are typically associated with higher prices, but they also equate to more efficient skates and better overall skating experiences. The prices are not outrageous, but we figured you would appreciate us more if we told you the truth.
When it comes to what constitutes a better frame, you will be looking for three things: weight, stiffness, and durability. Each of these characteristics is largely attributed to the type of material the frame is made of. Skate frames are typically constructed from plastic, aluminum, or carbon.
Plastic frames are usually found on beginner level inline skates because they are less expensive to make, resulting in a lower priced skate. When compared to aluminum or carbon frames, plastic frames are the least durable and least stiff of the three materials. They also tend to be heavier, which increases the overall weight of the skate.
Aluminum frames, when compared to plastic frames, are lighter in weight and greater in stiffness. They do not torque under stress as plastic frames do, making them more efficient and also more durable. Aluminum frames are most commonly found on intermediate level inline skates, priced at levels slightly higher than those at the entry level.
Carbon was introduced to inline skate frames as a way to further reinforce aluminum frames, reduce weight, and increase durability for advanced level skaters. Adding carbon to aluminum increases the stiffness of the aluminum, making it more durable. Additionally, the weight of the frame is reduced because the carbon is lighter than the aluminum it is replacing. While the price of skates that have carbon frames is higher, the efficiency, longevity, and durability of the skate will more than make up for the little bit of extra money you spend.
While every skater is going to have his or her own individual preference when it comes to a skate frame, the bottom line is that the frame should be lightweight, durable, and stiff. A lighter frame equates to a lighter overall skate, which offers many benefits. Lighter skates help reduce fatigue and allow you to skate longer, allow you to skate faster if you desire to, and they are more comfortable on your feet. As discussed above, lighter frames are usually made from high-grade aluminum or a carbon aluminum mix. Often you will see frames that are composed of such material have sections cutout to further reduce the weight. Here is a photo that illustrates a frame with cutouts:
Frame stiffness is also an important aspect of your skate frame because it creates a more direct transfer of energy. When skating, you thrust your legs outward, creating energy to make your skates go. The energy from your legs travels through the boot of your skate, down to the frame, and ultimately to your wheels and the ground.
Throughout each step of the energy transfer process, the initial energy that is created by your legs is reduced by the flex of the skate materials. The flex allows energy to escape before it gets to the wheels and ultimately the ground. A stiffer frame has less flex and movement, reducing the amount of energy that is lost when energy is transferred to the wheels. The result is a more efficient skating experience, allowing you to skate farther and faster more easily.
Finally, durability is also a key trait you will desire. In large part the durability of your frame is essential because it is often difficult to find a replacement if it breaks. While some frames are replaceable, it is more common that once your frames are ruined, your skates are ruined too. Additionally, as the frame begins to experience wear-and-tear, it may loosen. This will cause your skating experience to become rougher.
Like other elements of inline skating, wheels have seen their fair share of advancements over the years. Wheels that you find on modern inline skates are manufactured from polyurethane. Seldom will you find wheels made of any other material, unlike decades ago when inline skating began its emergence. Many skates manufactured in the 1980s and 1990s had plastic wheels, which were ineffective and cracked easily. Nowadays, very few skates (typically skates for children) offer anything but a polyurethane wheel.
When you’re shopping for and comparing inline skates, there are several items that you will want to consider regarding wheels, including wheel size, durometer rating (hardness), and the type of skating you will be doing.
Inline wheel sizing is measured by diameter and stated in millimeters (mm). Wheel diameters will vary in size from very small (57mm or below), to very large (up to 100mm). The variances exist due to the different types of skates that are available. Very large wheels are most commonly found on racing skates because larger wheels allow for higher speeds. Smaller wheels on the other hand offer faster acceleration and deceleration, which is why most skates do not utilize the larger wheel sizes mentioned previously.
To provide you with a general idea of the wheel diameters you will find across the different skate types, here is a short breakdown:
Recreational/Fitness Skates: Depending on the level skater the skate is made for, recreational and fitness skate wheel diameters can range from 76mm up to 90mm, and anywhere in between. Remember, 90mm wheels are rather large; therefore they should be used by skaters who are comfortable at higher speeds.
Speed Skates: Wheels for this skate type are usually larger than you will find on any other skate type. Commonly, the wheel diameter is larger than 90mm for the purpose of higher speeds. Additionally, speed skates are unlikely to use a brake, but instead will feature a wider wheel base, and also potentially use 5 wheels instead of the typical 4 wheels. Keep this in mind when you’re shopping for speed skates.
Aggressive Skates: Require high rates of acceleration to perform tricks and jumps. The typical wheel size found on aggressive skates is 56mm, and rarely larger than 59mm.
In addition to wheel size, wheel Durometer is another important characteristic to consider when comparing skates and skate wheels. A wheel Durometer is simply the hardness rating of the wheel. Durometer ratings are indicated by a number followed by the capital letter A. The hardness scale runs from 0 to 100, with 0 being the softest rating and 100 being the hardest. While the rating scale is from 0 to 100, it is not likely you will find a wheel that has a rating softer than 68A. A wheel softer than this is likely to wear down too fast, regardless of its use.
To determine what Durometer rating you need, you must determine what type of skating you will be using your skates for. Softer wheels are to be used on smooth surfaces such as indoor skating rinks. A softer wheel is ideal for this type of surface because it has better grip than harder wheels. It also equates to faster acceleration. If you are looking to skate outdoors, but desire a wheel that will absorb shock, you can use a wheel with a Durometer rating at the upper-end of the soft range, usually around 78A. Keep in mind however, that if a softer wheel is used too often on a rough surface, it will wear down very quickly, and in some cases chunk apart.
If you are planning on doing some recreational or fitness skating, the lowest Durometer rating you will want to use is a 78A. This rating will provide you with an excellent combination of grip and speed. Additionally, this Durometer rating will provide you the flexibility to take your skating indoors, without worrying about slipping and sliding on the floor. If your plan is to skate exclusively outdoors, you’re probably best to get a wheel with a Durometer rating that is slightly higher, perhaps 82A or 84A. This will offer increased speeds, and it will not wear down as quickly on the rough terrain.
Aggressive skaters will want to seek out harder wheels, usually no less than 88A. The reason for this is because of the terrain it will be used on, the abuse it will take, and the speeds that aggressive skaters require.
Inline skate bearings are an essential part of inline skates. Bearings ultimately determine the smoothness of your ride when you’re skating and also your ability to reach higher speeds .The idea behind an inline skate bearing is to reduce the friction that exists between a moving skate wheel and fixed, non-moving frame. When you’re shopping for inline skates, you’ll no doubt come across a few skates that interest you, but the real question will be how to determine their significant differences and what makes one better than the other. One such way to distinguish some differences is through the skate bearings. Bearings are rated using the Annular Bearing Engineer Council rating, better known as an ABEC rating. ABEC ratings typically have five levels, ABEC 1, ABEC 3, ABEC 5, ABEC 7, and ABEC 9. The higher the number, the higher the efficiency and the less effort you will need to put forth for a longer roll.
For some specific information on how an ABEC rating is determined, you can check out our article, Skate Bearings 101. Be cautioned however, that when comparing bearings each manufacturer of bearings has their own definition of the system. This is important because what one company considers an ABEC 7 for example, may only be an ABEC 5 at another company. Often times this is attributed to the country of origin. An ABEC 5 made in China is not typically going to be as good as an ABEC 5 bearing made in the United States. But for the most part, you won’t have to worry about an ABEC 9 rating being the same as an ABEC 1 because of its country of origin.
In addition to ABEC rated bearings, you’ll also be likely to come across “precision” bearings. Precision bearings do not follow the ABEC rating scale and are present in forms such as Titanium, Swiss, or Ceramic. The lack of rating makes it difficult to compare them to ABEC rated bearings, but they are generally considered to be superior to ABEC bearings. If you wanted to rank the three from good to best, the scenario would be: Titanium, Swiss, and Ceramic.
Finally, you should also be aware that bearings not only come in a variety of different ratings, but they also come in different types. For years bearings that came standard on inline skates were Standard 608 bearings. As skates have changed throughout the years, so have bearings, best represented by the introduction of the Micro 688 bearing.
Standard 608 bearings are rated using the ABEC rating system described previously. Microbearings are not rated on the ABEC scale, but offer excellent performance. The performance aspects of Microbearings stem from their construction which involves more ball bearings per bearing than a Standard 608. The result of this construction is that a skater’s weight is more evenly distributed; allowing the bearing to operate more efficiently…efficiency is the key. Microbearings are also much smaller and lighter than Standard 608 bearings. The small size will allow for faster acceleration, and the lighter weight reduces the overall weight of the skate.
So if you’re shopping for skates and you’re either wondering what differentiates a skate with 608 bearings from one with 688 bearings, or what benefit you would receive from choosing a skate with 688 bearings over 608 bearings, you now know.
When it comes to braking systems on inline skates, you will find one of three types on any given inline skate: Traditional, Advanced Braking Technology (ABT), or no brake at all.
The traditional type of inline brake is position on the back of the skate, behind the last wheel on the chassis. If you’re familiar with the design of a roller skate, this position is quite different as it requires the use of your heel instead of your toe.
An advanced braking system, more commonly referred to as an ABT brake, is also positioned on the back of the skate, in the same place as a traditional brake would be. The difference between this type of brake and the aforementioned traditional braking type is that it utilizes a braking arm that runs behind the skate boot. To initiate the braking mechanism, you simply slide your foot forward and apply pressure to the back of the cuff. This pushes the braking arm down and the brake to the skating surface to slow you down.
Each of these types of brake systems are explained in further detail below, but here is a visual comparison on each of these brake systems to give you an idea of what we are describing above.
A traditional brake system is the most common type of brake, found on nearly every recreational and fitness skate. The brake itself is essentially a hard rubber pad that is attached to a plastic holder that is fastened to the back of one of the inline skates via the axle on the rear wheel. Typically, the brake will come attached to the right skate, but is often interchangeable between skates. This is done so that left-foot dominant skaters can switch the brake to the left skate.
The ABT braking system was introduced by skate manufacturer Rollerblade in the mid 1990s, and is found exclusively on Rollerblade and Bladerunner brand inline skates. Typically, this system is used only on their entry-level inline skates, as it was developed to help beginners gain confidence with braking on their skates. As mentioned above, it uses a braking arm that is attached to the brake at the rear of the skate frame.
To initiate the braking mechanism, you simply slide your foot forward and apply pressure to the back of the cuff. This pushes the braking arm down and the brake to the skating surface to slow you down. The benefit to this type of system for the beginner is that it allows you to keep both skates on the ground and keep your balance while braking.
Although this may seem to be suicide to beginner and novice skaters, many skates do not offer a braking system. While it may not be common on beginner recreational or fitness skates, aggressive skates, roller hockey skates, and speed skates are just some of the skate styles that do not offer a brake system. The reason for this is that brake systems on these types of skates tend to get in the way of performance.
For more information on how each of these braking systems works, you can learn more by reading through our article on Inline Skate Brakes.